At the beginning of the National League Division Series between the Washington Nationals and the San Francisco Giants, it seemed that some were overestimating the Nationals and underestimating the Giants (you can perhaps include me in this group, as I predicted that the Nats would sweep the Giants). When this series is looked back at in a few years – if we remember it at all – it is entirely possible that the opposite will occur, and we will underestimate how close this series was. After four games, the Nationals and Giants played 45 innings, scored nine runs apiece and were evenly matched throughout. Yet it was the Giants who walked away not only with a victory but a victory in a mere four games.
Game Four seemed to encapsulate how close, yet how far apart, the series was for Washington and San Francisco. Despite a contest that was tied at the top of the seventh inning, it never seemed like the Nationals had a chance to win. Instead, it seemed far more like the Nationals were merely prolonging their agony.
Gio Gonzalez got the ball for the Nationals, and on paper the Nats seemed to have the clear advantage on the hill. But with the exception of Game Three – which the Nationals won, by the way – this had been the way it had been the entire series. The Nationals had the deeper staff, the pitchers who had the superior results during the regular season, the guys with the lower ERAs and the higher WARs. The Giants merely had the guys who actually got the job done in the playoffs.
The trouble for Washington started in the second inning, on a sequence that saw a soft, opposite-field single for Brandon Crawford followed by a ball hit into the ground by Juan Perez that took a funky hop, making it impossible for Gonzalez to handle. Vogelsong then helped his own cause with a perfect bunt. Anthony Rendon – who had been almost perfect through this series – probably should have tried to field it and throw Vogelsong out, given that the pitcher was running. Gonzalez, clearly rattled at this point, walked Gregor Blanco, allowing the first run. He recovered with two ground outs, but one of them led to another run.
The way Vogelsong was pitching, a 2-0 lead looked like it might have held up for the Giants. Vogelsong, who averaged 91-mph on his fastball during the regular season, was hitting 94-95 on the upper end and 93-mph consistently.
The Fox Sports 1 broadcast crew cited the fact that Vogelsong was “amped up” for the playoffs; a more likely reason was that he well rested, as he had not pitched since September 26. Whatever the reason, Vogelsong managed to keep the Nationals in check until the top of the fifth inning, when Bryce Harper pushed home Ian Desmond on a double. He faced six more batters in the game, retiring five and allowing just a walk to Nate Schierholtz the rest of the way.
At this point, a managerial chess game with each team’s respective bullpen began. Matt Williams brought Tanner Roark in to start the fifth inning, then Jerry Blevins to face Brandon Belt with two outs. Bruce Bochy brought Javier Lopez in to face lefty Adam LaRoche with two outs in the sixth inning. Then in the top of the seventh inning, Bochy made one of his few mistakes in the series, bringing in Hunter Strickland to face Desmond, Harper, and Wilson Ramos.
Desmond was retired, but Strickland was no match for Harper. Despite throwing high 90s gas, Strickland wasn’t able to pump a fastball past Harper and the result was a towering home run into McCovey Cove that tied the game at 2-2. The close series got as close as you can possibly get. Harper doesn’t completely fold against lefties, but Bochy might have been better off going with a southpaw.
Then in the bottom of the seventh came one of the oddest sequences of the entire NLDS, and one that cost the Nationals the game and the series. Matt Thornton came in to face left-handers Gregor Blanco and Joe Panik. Blanco bunted into an out and Panik singled, but this happens. Left-handers aren’t invincible against left-handers. The baffling part of the move was that no one was warming in the bullpen to start the inning and Thornton had to stay in to face Buster Posey. Craig Stammen had started warming when Panik was up, but was not ready. Thornton gave up another hit, this time to a right-hander, and the Giants had the go ahead run on second.
Aaron Barrett came instead of Stammen and was incredibly wild. He was so wild that he walked Pence, uncorked a wild pitch that allowed Panik to score, and then uncorked another wild pitch – on an intentional ball, no less – that got Posey thrown out at home on a wild play that saw Ramos perfectly pick up the carom off of the backstop.
The Nationals failed to score despite Harper reaching base one more time and lost 3-2. Despite the series being close, questions will remain in both Games Two and Four about the way that Williams did – or didn’t – use his bullpen. In Game Two, it seemed that leaving Jordan Zimmermann in to face Posey might have made sense instead of going to Drew Storen. Last night, Williams seemed to have the opposite problem and was too conservative with the arms that he had. Game Four was an all hands on deck affair for the Nationals, or at least seemed like it should have been. But instead of using Storen, Tyler Clippard, or perhaps even starter Stephen Strasburg in a long relief role, Williams relied on using set relievers for set roles. Worse yet, he didn’t seem prepared to get Thornton out of there quickly after he faced his allotment of left-handed pitchers.
This isn’t all about Williams and what he did or didn’t do. The Giants capitalized in Game 4 like they capitalized the entire series, while the Nationals seemed stuck relying on one hitter per game throughout most of the series (Rendon in Games One and Two; Harper in Game Four). The result is that the Giants pulled off the unlikely upset, and are headed to the National League Championship Series, and the opportunity to play in their third World Series in the past five years.